Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Always Stick: Tips for Successful Change

Cheers to a New Year!

All I did was bend over to tuck in the sheet to make the bed when suddenly, “OUCH”! What did I just do?! My left lower back in a single moment seemed to just scream out at me in sudden pain. I literally stayed bent over in that position for a good minute, afraid to move. Did I pull a muscle, slip a disc, break a hip? It was a rude awakening that yes indeed, I was getting older. I slowly made my way to the standing position, but was unable to bop out of the room in my usual fashion. I moved slowly. It hurt, but was tolerable (barely).

Just having spent almost two weeks burning the candle at both ends on our yearly holiday trip to Florida, I thought I was doing pretty good until that moment. Not being one to make resolutions, I am one who does believe in re-assessing your life when something negative happens. This painful experience was an eye-opener. I thought “I need to do something. I can’t live like this”. I have always felt bad for people with random pains, such as knee issues, hip pain, neck pain, etc. My own husband has issues with his back as a result of an accident long ago and needs to do yoga, weights and a daily hot tub in order to avoid pain. My younger sister was very strong and loved her weight training, maintaining strength and fitness throughout her life, until eventually she needed a hip replacement (despite her strength and fitness). Lots of people I know have cartilage issues that affect their knees and ability to get around.Yes, I felt fortunate none of these ailments affected me. But now, here I am, with even more empathy for those with pain. I look back at how I have joked about how I dislike weight training, and how I don’t have the patience for yoga (which I once loved), but now am learning, the joke is on me. I tend to be a person who just likes to do what I enjoy, and so I have walked and jogged and biked and hiked and danced the night away, and it has served my lungs and endurance and heart and sanity well. But clearly, as we age our muscles tighten, our bones weaken, and if we want to avoid pain, and if a lifestyle change actually can prevent it (in my case I am hoping so) then maybe it is time to re-assess. Funny, it just so happens to be New Year’s, the time for resolutions. Do I make a specific resolution that I will do yoga and weight training for X amount of days a week? Like I said, I am not a fan of resolutions, but I am a huge fan of avoiding pain, so I need to do something.

I have looked into this topic before (what makes people successful at keeping resolutions, how do people maintain change,etc.).The answers and opinions are out there, however different for everyone. We know that positive thinking is important verses a constant negative “expectation” of failing. Always thinking “how long will this last?” predicts an end. Telling people about your goals motivates some people (not all….personally, I would hate the pressure). Having “SMART GOALS ” is a part of most behavioral change programs. Specific. Measurable. Attainable/Agreed upon. Realistic. Time-bound. Yes, there are lots of tips for accomplishing your goals, however I am also fascinated by what makes us fail….because I personally want to avoid that thinking. I don’t want to set myself up for failing so I have been doing a lot of reflection and soul-searching since feeling this pain.

I have been thinking about what I have seen contribute to failure to change in many of my former patients (or just observation in others). One mistake I see is being too specific with expectations. I have written about the “black and white, all-or-nothing” thinking before, and I still believe this is a huge barrier to meaningful change. Yes, according to the “SMART” goal guideline, being specific is supposed to be helpful. Yet, I have seen  when a person is unable to accomplish exactly what they had planned for even just one day, they feel bad. Feelings of not doing “good enough” contribute to “giving up”.

Another mistake we often make is in the “realistic” and “achievable” expectations. So many of my patients often have had a very specific weight in mind, for example, they designate as their goal weight. They come up with these number from various places, such as a magazine (“famous Suzy Q is my height, and she weighs blah blah blah, and so should I”). Or, “my doctor said for my height that is what I should weigh”, or “I used to weigh that in high school”, or “I don’t know, it sounds good”. People often like even numbers I have found. I have never heard “I want to weigh 147”. Also, people fail to take into account our bodies never weigh one number. We fluctuate (and it is normal, which is why daily weights are a bit silly and meaningless). But weight is only one area people get too unreasonable. I have been guilty of being quite unreasonable in my physical capabilities (which has likely contributed to my current pain issues). Oh yes, I made a casual bet with my husband that if I could do a back bend by Christmas, he would pay me 100 dollars. This never happened because I wisely gave up. What was I thinking? I also was under the impression I might be able to actually rank in a decent position in a yearly local road race if I started training. The first time I tried to up my jogging speed I felt a painful twitch in my hip which has taken months to fade. Yes, I have had to lower my expectations (as my age increases, my expectations decrease). But, that does not mean I am going to give up.

I also think having “time-bound” expectations can be sabotaging. Things don’t always happen when you plan them, so how would this set anyone up for being successful (unless it is only me, but I doubt it). Saying “by Christmas, I will be able to do a back bend” clearly was not too smart. And definitely not doable. I failed. No, I am not a fan of a tight time table. Instead, I prefer the feeling of “movement” in a better direction.

So, what does all this mean as far as avoiding failure, feeling successful, and moving toward change? I can only share my feelings and experiences. Personally, I have realized that I am a very visual learner. That means, I need to actually “see” something to understand it. That is probably why I loved chemistry, because the molecules and reactions are all drawn out, and are actually structures I can see. That makes sense to me. And so, as far as making changes (for me, incorporating stretching or yoga as well as strength training) I need to visually look at my calendar/schedule/real life. For my walking/hiking I tend to look at the week ahead and then I know the days I can come home and do my thing. It does not matter if I have a holiday party on one day and a girls get-together on another. I like the flexibility of being able to be social as well as active. With a rigid schedule feelings of guilt and obsession often creep in for some people, so being flexible does not affect your health or your fitness in any big way. And, it leads to more success.

When it comes to fitting in my flexibility training (sounds official, really it is elderly stretching), signing up for a yoga class at noon will not work because I am at work. Before the holidays (after I tweaked my back the first time by trying to run fast) I found that instead of standing in the kitchen and watching the news on our small TV like I usually do while sipping my coffee, I could easily incorporate some stretching. I don’t count, it may be ten minutes, but it is a start. It has already helped (well, until I bent over to make that bed, now I have my left side to work on). The bottom line is, it is doable because it is realistic, not time-bound, and flexible (I may do 5 minutes, or maybe 20).

Another factor that leads to success as far as making change is creating an environment that is supportive of the change you are working on. I will give the example of hydration, since this is an issue for me. I am not a fan of water, however flavored seltzer I can do. When I run out of it, I forget to drink enough when I am home. At work, I have a large coffee cup which triggers me to drink (as I make a point to fill it with water after I finish my coffee and am pretty good with filling it 3 times at least). But at home, it is a different story. And, leaving an open bottle of my favorite chardonnay in the fridge door is a good example of a sabotaging environment! If it is my plan to drink less wine and more water, then replacing that bottle of wine with my favorite flavored seltzer is a good example of creating a supportive environment. The same applies to food. It is so much easier to eat healthier when there is food available. Looking at your schedule, calendar, life in general and planning that time to grocery shop and plan a menu helps create that supportive environment for healthier eating if that is a change you want to make.

Finally, how you look at changing behavior is really important, especially when it comes to making “mistakes” or “slips”. No matter what it is, eating, drinking, exercising, stopping swearing, getting to bed earlier, you will not be perfect. You WILL not do what you had planned to do for whatever reason. I choose to look at these instances as gifts. So-called mistakes can actually provide insights into reality. Real life. This is what we NEED to know. Instead of beating ourselves up for not doing what we expected, why not stop and reflect? Ask, “why did this happen?” Only then can we work on addressing the real things in our lives that need fixing (or adjusting). Over time, we get where we need to go. There are people who prefer very specific plans (when it comes to eating or exercising) and it is comfortable for them, or has worked in the past for them. Although I am not a fan of dieting, etc, because I have seen some negative consequences in my work, you are the only one who knows what you need. I only suggest that incorporating some of the flexibility and common sense into whatever plan you choose may help to prevent that “all or nothing” way of life many fall into in their lives. Movement, no matter the speed, is still change.

In a nutshell, what I have learned from my experience with myself and others:

  1. Don’t be too specific. Make goals but be flexible with them.
  2. Don’t put too much emphasis on time. Does it really matter if you exercised for 20 minutes or 30? And does it really matter if you weigh whatever by whatever date? Or run a mile in 8 minutes, or do a back bend by Christmas?
  3. Be realistic. Don’t go by what others are doing, or what they eat, or how much they weigh. Know yourself, that is all that matters.
  4. Look at your schedule, your calendar, your life. Every week is not the same, and so how can you expect to be able to do the exact same thing every day? Work on flexibility, not perfection.
  5. Create a supportive environment to help you accomplish your goals. If you want to eat more fruits and vegetables, you need to buy them. If you don’t want to waste money on buying lunch at work, you will need to bring it (which means grocery shopping and making lunch).
  6. Welcome the wealth of knowledge you can gain from your “mistakes”. This is the key to change. You have at your fingertips all of the lessons you need to learn to help you gradually create the lifestyle you want. You just have to stop wasting time beating yourself up and instead, say “hhmmm, that was interesting….why did I do that? what might help next time?” Yes, a gentler approach to ourselves always helps.

So here’s to you, and all your efforts at healthy change, and may you never make the mistake of trying to do a back bend after the age of 60.


Blood Sugar and Willpower: Taking A New Look at New Year’s Resolutions

cheers-1443534 First of all, I need to be honest, I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions (for myself anyway). But I know that a majority of people make them (over 75 percent of Americans) and most people, after a few months or so tend to give up (if you have ever belonged to a gym, you know what I am talking about). The resolutions some people choose are never that easy to keep. Since most of them focus on health issues or eating/weight loss and exercise behavior, I felt obligated to share my opinion (and experiences).

There are many reasons people are not successful with their resolutions, and there is disagreement as to what makes some people more successful. It has nothing to do with “willpower”, a word I don’t use because it insinuates some of us are “better” than others while others are “less than”. When it comes to behavior around eating, some individuals, due to their genetic make-up (the way they were born) get full fast, and consequently don’t tend to overeat (nothing to do with their character). Others just do not get that message to their brains (again, due to their genes, and not because they are weak or have no willpower) and so may need to eat more to feel satisfied. Other factors affect eating behavior of course, but that is one example of why willpower is not my favorite word. For more details, check a previous post for a review of  Willpower

Anyway, while researching the topic of resolutions, I stumbled upon an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007, Volume 92, No.2, 325-336), “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as Limited Energy Source: Willpower More Than A Metaphor”. The researchers investigated an important point that most people aren’t aware of: self-control processes act as if they depend on “some type of a limited energy resource”. The article reviewed previous research providing evidence that a single act of self-control (for instance, resisting dessert) uses up a limited energy source that makes it difficult to be successful at any other attempt at self-control.

The researchers hypothesized that glucose was the energy source that our brains have a limited supply of, and that the brain uses more energy (glucose, or blood sugar) with an act of self-control verses performing cognitive tasks. Participants in the research were college students, and nine different experiments were performed with different groups to test out various conditions (specifically, “the major goals of this investigation were (a) to establish that blood glucose levels are reduced from before to after performing an initial self-control task and (b) to show that low levels of glucose after a first self-control task predict behavioral deficits on a second self-control task”). In other words, when your are trying to resist something, you use up a lot of brain energy, and if you try a second time to resist something else, it gets harder and harder due to the fact that you have no energy left.

The experiments that were conducted challenged subjects in different ways. For instance, in just one part of the study subjects were asked to watch a video of a woman talking with words appearing under the video which the participants were supposed to use “self-control” and avoid reading. Challenges such as this were then followed by different challenges, with glucose levels monitored. In other parts of the study, glucose was provided in the form of a sweetened beverage (with a placebo of an artificially sweetened drink) to see if this had any affect.

Findings from this study supported the hypothesis that self-control depends on glucose. As reported in the article: “First, measurements of blood glucose showed significant drops following acts of self-control, primarily among participants who worked hardest. Second, low glucose after an initial self-control task (e.g., emotion regulation) was linked to poor self-control on a subsequent task. Third, experimental manipulations of glucose reduced or eliminated self-control decrements stemming from an initial self-control task”.

What does all this have to do with your New Year’s Resolution?  The bottom line is that expecting yourself to have enough “willpower” or self-control to accomplish a bunch of resolutions is not only psychologically challenging, but probably physiologically impossible. The fact that it takes more energy (glucose) to use self-control means that you easily become depleted if you take on too much.  And this is just one of the issues why making too many resolutions is not a good idea. Instead, if you insist on making a new year’s resolution,here is some simple advice. Some you may have heard before, but well worth repeating:

  1. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead of biting off more than you can chew (“I am never eating junk food again!”) pick just one thing that has been gnawing at you. For example, do you always complain about lack of sleep? Or eating fast food because you don’t know how to cook? Or do you truly live off of fast food and have the indigestion to prove it? Instead of making an “all-or-nothing” decision which I can almost promise will set you up for failure (not good for either physical or psychological health), start small. Make it doable. Cooking a healthy meal even one night a week is a success that you will feel good about.
  2. Keep it positive. Don’t use “negative” words. Instead of “I am NOT eating this or doing that, how about “I am going to……add a fruit to my lunch. Take a karate lesson. Walk to work. Taking away too much is not only negative, it tends to make you feel deprived and makes you want the forbidden whatever even more.
  3. Don’t talk about it. Many people will disagree with me. Some people feel that if you tell everyone (or someone) that you have a goal that you are more likely to feel accountable. Really? It doesn’t sound right to me (and would not feel right to me anyway) to care about what anyone thinks of me or my health habits or lifestyle. I want to sleep better because it makes ME feel better. Plus, if you tell someone, or make a big deal about it, what if you don’t accomplish what you set out to do? Even the people you share with will feel uncomfortable. They likely don’t want you living up to their expectations either. Do what you want to do because you want to do it. On the other hand, there are some people who truly do love and need the support of others. This is different. If you are happy sharing, then do it. And if you need support, and have good friends or family who truly are supportive, go for it. Having healthy and supportive people around us can be inspiring.
  4. No numbers. I just hate numbers when it comes to health. People get all wrapped up in numbers and I just don’t think that is healthy at all. It takes all the fun out of some really healthy things. Take physical activity for example. It can be really enjoyable to go for a walk, or a hike in the woods, or even to jog slowly around a track and daydream. When you have to count the laps, or measure the miles, or time your speed, yuck. It just is not fun.Yes, there are exceptions, those people who just love numbers. Some people thrive on competition and all of that. Those aren’t the people I am talking about. It is the people who start something but then stop because they can’t accomplish the number. Yes, a “smart goal” is specific, but that can mean making a goal of getting outside twice a week. It does not have to be something ridiculous. The same holds true with eating. It takes the joy out of meals and food, and disconnects you from what your body needs. The number on the scale is also pretty useless when it comes to health. I have known many individuals who have succeeded in bringing down blood pressure, glucose levels, and others who have taken up a sport and gotten fit, but then stopped just because the number on the scale stopped moving down. Why not skip the number goal and just focus on the health aspect?
  5. Pretend it is not January 1st. Really. Yes, it is great to reflect on your life and health and want to make changes that move you in a better direction. But you can do that any time. June, September, your birthday. Actually, our lives change more than once a year in one way or another, and it is important to readjust sometimes. Getting into the habit of even just caring about your health is much more important than picking some unrealistic and extreme resolution on January 1.

So there you have it. No resolutions for me! As I get older, and my life (and body) change, my focus on figuring out how I can feel my best, be my healthiest (physically AND mentally) and live the longest fun life really doesn’t change. I hope you consider a focus on health too.

Here’s to a Happy Healthy New Year!!!!!!